Usman Baba Pategi: A fitting NANTAP fellowship for the legendary ‘Samanja’
There was a sustained applause when the master of ceremonies announced that the legendary actor Usman Baba Pategi, who is popular as Samanja, was among the shortlist of distinguished theatre practitioners to be inducted as Fellows of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP).
When the now visually impaired 75-year-old actor walked in, with his son leading him into the main hall of the popular event centre-Planet One, in Maryland, Ikeja, Lagos, it was a standing ovation that the quality guest that the investiture and induction ceremony attracted felt was fitting for the Prince of Pategi in Niger State, who made name as a comedian on radio, television and on stage.
Son of the late Etsu Pategi, Samanja walked into national prominence and became a household name playing the dutiful, witty and one of the most iconic characters in the history of drama on Nigerian television “Sergeant-Major” in the long rested Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) drama series Samanja, which ran for decades on national television.
An iconoclastic actor who has had a rich acting career, the idea to create a mock military drama programme that will focus on the lives of soldiers, off, on and in the barracks came shortly after the Nigerian civil war. But the inspiration as Samanja revealed came with his enlistment into the Nigerian Army in 1969.
He explains: “I was with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) before the war started. When it started, some military officers went round seeking those who can volunteer to serve in the Army. I volunteered because I considered it a call to serve my country. So I took permission from my boss at the NBC and the next place I found myself was at the Army depot in Zaria, where we were trained and were later deployed.
“I was one of the few people that were sent to the Army Signal School in Lagos. It was while in the Army that I started observing how our Sergeant Major controlled the other ranks and related with his superiors. And as an active soldier, it was easy for me to gist and interact with the rank and file. And so after the war, I left the Army and returned to my first love, which is drama. Acting gives me joy. It makes me happy.’’
A former staff of the Public Works Department who had his early education in Pategi and later Ilorin Middle School, Samanja retired formally from the Army in 1985 and returned to his former beat, but this time at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Kaduna broadcasting station.
Star of one of NBC’s flagship drama programme of the 70’s titled Mallam Jatau Na Albarkawa and current host of the weekly talk programme on radio in Hausa titled Duniya Budurwan Wawa, it was shortly after Samanja was delisted from the Army that he led a small team at FRCN and later at NTA to give life to the drama series Samanja, which, as he reiterated, was meant to enlighten the civil populace on military regiments.
No doubt, the programme achieved its objective. It had a huge followership and was a must-watch for those who followed drama on television. The programme also got the full endorsement of the military as exemplified by the support that the cast and crew got from top military brass.
“They invited us to perform in the barracks’’ Samanja stated adding, “we got invitations to entertain them in the barracks. It was when former President Ibrahim Babaginda and also General Abacha through his wife and even General Muhammadu Buhari invited us to come and perform that I knew that they liked the programme.
“Once, we performed at Bonny Camp in Lagos and they almost didn’t allow us return to Kaduna. They showed us so much love and in fact they gave us permission to enter where they keep equipment to get whatever kits we needed. If you checked, you will see that we used real Army uniforms and props and I think we are the only ones they trusted to use the uniforms responsibly.
“My other memorable moment as an actor was when we came to Lagos on the invitation of General Babangida to perform during the Army Day celebration. I can never forget the kind of VIP treatment we got. A plane was dispatched to take us down to Lagos to perform and to fly us back to Kaduna. So we had the military and the civilians as our fans.’’
If the drama series had such a huge following, why was it rested? “It was due to lack of sponsorship,” Samanja snapped. “We didn’t have sponsors to bankroll the programme and NTA couldn’t continue funding the production of the programme,’’ he said.
But when reminded that the other reason the programme was rested was because of his failing eyesight, Samanja replied with a “Yes” and said “it was true that that contributed because I couldn’t be taken around on the programme because of my bad sight. So I agree that that contributed and I must acknowledge the help I got from Alhaji Aliko Dangote to fix the problem with my sight. Allah used Alhaji Dangote to sponsor my bill. I went to India twice on his bill but unfortunately I was told that I have a bad case and that I should accept my fate. I have accepted and I leave everything in the hands of Allah.’’
Asked if the series can be revived, Samanja said it can and he adds that it is possible to get the programme running again with a new cast and crew. “Yes it can be revived. The framework is there already. All you need is the ideas that will be scripted and acted. And I am still around to help. My eye condition won’t be a problem. This is what I have been doing almost all my life so it will be easy to help with the production. But like I said, we need sponsorship to put such a good programme back on air for people to enjoy.’’
When asked what he wants to be remembered for, Usman Baba Pategi said he wants to be remembered as a man of peace and a man who forgives easily.
His words: “I want to be remembered as a man of peace and as a man who holds no grudge. My children will tell you that I forgive easily. And because I forgive easily, I will want anyone that I have offended to forgive me and pray for me. As for whether I have any regrets. I don’t have. I am happy. I am glad that Allah used me to put smile on faces. I am happy that Allah used the platform of Samanja to make me popular. I mean, look at me coming all the way from Kaduna to be honoured by NANTAP. It is Allah’s doing and I am grateful to Allah for the grace of life.’’